By Mark John Smith
As many of you may know, this year marks the 50th anniversary of Jefferson Market Library (JMU). For the last half-century, JMU has served as an epicenter for learning, discovery, imagination, and engagement as one of the New York Public Library system’s flagship branches.
For over a decade, JMU’s current guardian, Frank Collerius, has nurtured a unique intertwining of architecture and community, amalgamating the needs of the public with the unique spaces of the building. In doing so, Frank and his team continue to pioneer a new type of public space—one more akin to a collective home than an “institution.” Remarkably, their innovation, sensitivity, and investiture in bolstering community is, in fact, a direct continuation of actions by members of the Village public to save the Library. Originally earmarked for demolition in the 1950s, the united voices of Village residents ultimately repelled the wrecking ball. Notably, this act of defiance predates the National Historic Preservation Act and set a precedent for the safeguarding of other City landmarks.
Over the years, Library patrons and visitors have maintained their direct relationship to the JMU, giving their voices through letters, ledgers, and language (often handwritten) and all uniquely indexical to those that wrote them. All of these have been archived by the Library and now form the basis of a new, site-specific immersive installation that I am delighted to have worked on with Frank for the past two years. JMU’s second-floor reading room will be transformed into a work of art, bringing a constellation of language to its architecture and, with it, the opportunity to immerse oneself amongst fragments of communication—each pointing to a unique individual, story, time, and place.
In discovering and studying the saved records and letters of correspondence, I was continually astounded by the vibrancy of the emotional arc evoked in each narrative. Time and time again, the resounding messages communicated are those of progress, innovation, and togetherness. In undertaking this project, an expansive sociolinguistic tapestry emerged—a network of voices, narratives, and traces of the past and present—unified through collective devotion and proactive involvement with the Library. There is something beautifully nuanced about handwriting—the gestures contained within letters and the specificity of choice in paper, color, and pressure. Children, who at the Library’s 1967 opening, just old enough to qualify for library cards and by virtue of signing their names for the first time under the pledge: “When I write my name in this book, I promise to take good care of the books I use in the Library and at home, and to obey the rules of the Library,” entered into a legacy of lifelong library stewardship and became a part of its history and architecture of social self-sustainability.
This new work will celebrate precisely this type of intimate engagement with JMU, including letters of thanks, complaints, questions, drawings, and hand-addressed envelopes. These come together, forming a bespoke, dynamic wallpaper which will adorn the walls of the Library with voices and opinions of the people to whom it belongs—an abstract landscape of language, thoughts, opinions, dates, aspirations, and criticism that will be reunited with the Library’s architecture. This coalescing of past and present will be accompanied by the publication of a new book, merging the documents cited in the wallpaper with their formative stories and experiences submitted by the public.
As we reflect upon this important milestone for JMU, it will also reflect its most important and most formative stakeholders—the people—who have, in turn, shaped its future. People will become language, which consequently, will become the architecture of this people’s treasure.
Mark John Smith is a British multi-disciplinary artist whose work is led by public engagement and driven by a desire to connect viewers and participants through contemporary experience. His work is housed in the permanent collections of the British Library and the International Olympic Committee, among others. www.markjohnsmith.co.uk